Yolanda Wisher on the Power of Telling Your Own Story

Since its creation in 2016, Urban Consulate has helped facilitate conversations in across the country on how to create better communities. On a cool summer evening at Philadelphia’s placid Cherry Street Pier, Urban Consulate hosted an insightful conversation on the arts between entrepreneur Akeem Dixon and poet laureate and educator Yolanda Wisher


A native of Philadelphia’s Germantown section, Wisher cites the women that raised her as early sources of inspiration. “I was raised by a woman and a group of women who instilled that sense of value in me every single day,” Wisher said. “Especially when it felt like the world was trying to strip me of that value, it was those women who put that armor and positive energy back onto me that I needed to walk through the world.” 


A Black woman that grew up in extenuating circumstances, Wisher found refuge in the written word as a reader, and later, writer. “[Things] changed a lot since I started writing when I was eight,” Wisher said. “I started as a little girl as a pretty precocious reader and my mother had books by Alice Walker and Nikki Giovanni around the house. I was reading a little above my [grade] level and writing about things related to my life. My house was full of domestic violence and addiction. There was a lot of struggle with money and I felt that as the oldest kid. Writing was a way for me to make sense of it on the page in a way that no one else had to know about. I didn’t have to experience any shame talking about it on the page.” 


As Wisher grew up, poetry captivated her in ways that expanded both her worldview and knowledge of self. “Poetry became a way out of the house and a way into the world,” Wisher explained. “It was something I always had in my back pocket, but never something I thought of as a career. I always thought it would be cool to live life as a poet but I had no idea what that really meant. Then I got my English degree and thought about how poetry could be more than just a solitary practice, which I love, but I was always looking for a way to connect outside of that private realm. Doing a series of workshops and events helped me see that this is what poetry is really about. It’s about making this other connection with people and getting other people to write their stories.”


Yolanda Wisher in conversation with Akeem Dixon. Photo by Heather McBride
Yolanda Wisher in conversation with Akeem Dixon. Photo by Heather McBride.


Wisher was forthright in describing the power that marginalized people have in telling stories. “I think individual stories have first and foremost a power for the individual,” Wisher said. “Zora Neale Hurston said, ‘There’s nothing like bearing an untold story inside you.’ The act of telling the story is cathartic, powerful and can be transformative. I’ve also seen how the telling of those has impacted families. Poetry and telling the stories of my family is due to the fact that a lot of people in my family don’t want to tell their stories because their pasts are too painful sometimes to talk about or make sense of. I hunger for those stories for people in my family that have passed on because those are the stories I have needed when I have struggled. Stories always have the power to transform the individual and the community around the individual.”


Earlier in her career, Wisher was inspired by HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a show featuring a diverse array of poets that helped affirm her love for unique storytelling. “I think as poor folks, we will always find a way to make our stories have value. Hip-hop is a movement that came out of poverty that was based on people’s stories and the way they wanted to tell their stories. Folks created a whole new way to give value to their stories because sometimes the forms that exist in this capitalist system don’t always validate the stories we want to hear.” 


Because of her unique trajectory as an artist and educator, Wisher is a proponent for celebrating artists from all walks of life, like the late Nellie Bright. “Somebody I’m really enthralled by is a woman named Nellie Bright,” Wisher said. “Nellie Bright was a poet, painter and educator that was writing during the time of the Harlem renaissance, which is kind of a weird thing to call it because there was also a literary renaissance happening in Philly at the same time. Nellie Bright was part of that group of young Black writers putting together readings in salons and putting together a literary magazine called Black Opals from 1927-1928. You can find editions of it in Temple University’s Charles L Blockson Collection.” 


For Wisher, the erasure of people like Bright’s contributions to culture and the arts is a major concern. “[Bright] was also a teacher during the entire time as part of this movement in Philadelphia public schools, which at the time were segregated. At some point she became a principal for decades and that’s what she’s known for. Women like her are footnotes in Philadelphia history and some people get known more from others. Classism and racism sometimes kept people from being included. I wonder why Nellie Bright didn’t make the textbooks or why we don’t hear about her as much. Today, I know many Nellie Brights. Some women may work in the school system and still be artists.”

Yolanda Wisher in conversation at Cherry Street Pier. Photo by Heather McBride.
Yolanda Wisher in conversation at Cherry Street Pier. Photo by Heather McBride.

Wisher believes that advocacy for the arts is a key component to building thriving communities. “Let’s get the elders involved. Let’s have a citywide project in which we get the elders to tell their stories. We have block captains, but what if there were something like that for storytelling? The city needs artists to be creative for thinking of new ways of creating engagement. As artists, we work with that and know how to play with form and structure. The artists I’m talking about care about people and how art impacts people.”


Wisher gave audience members two homework assignments that spoke to the accessibility of the arts to many people who may not know as much about their personal history as others. “Find an elder in your family or on your block and ask them to record their story. The act of asking takes a lot of courage. There are places that you will find that would love to have those interviews. [Also,] go home and write a story about yourself and write your own story and realize it could take 80 years, but don’t let that discourage you. Write a page and read it to yourself.”


Whether you’re a poet laureate or someone that enjoys expressing yourself for fun, one thing is clear after hearing Wisher’s remarks: The arts are available to everyone and are valuable resources in building better communities.